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'I'm afraid of heights': Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly on the hapless would-be astronauts of 'Moonbase 8'

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NASA, you have a problem: Some would-be astronauts with not quite the right stuff.

Fortunately, this trio is stationed at “Moonbase 8,” a six-episode Showtime comedy (premiering Sunday, 11 EST/PST), not in the real-world space program.

"Moonbase" tracks the three aspiring astronauts – team leader Cap (John C. Reilly), Skip (Fred Armisen) and Rook (Tim Heidecker) – isolated together at an Arizona desert camp that's meant to simulate being stationed on the moon.

Cap is a bit of a sad sack, constantly fretting about his car being booted in Hawaii, while Rook leans more toward bureaucrat than an astronaut, obsessing over environmental impact reports. Skip, who lives in the shadow of his celebrated astronaut father, has at least one great talent: He's a master of passive-aggressive behavior.

John C. Reilly, left, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker play three very grounded would-be astronauts in Showtime's 'Moonbase 8.'
John C. Reilly, left, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker play three very grounded would-be astronauts in Showtime's 'Moonbase 8.'

Based on their dented skill sets, it doesn't look like this group will be getting off the ground anytime soon.

The three actors, friends in real life, are fans of NASA and its space programs, but they saw the inherent comic contrast between the heroic, romantic image of astronauts and three guys who, while not total failures, aren't quite up to the job.

"Tim, Fred and I all end up playing dreamers a lot, or people who have funny notions about the way the world really is, kind of deluded people," says Reilly ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story").

"With ambitions beyond our capacity," Heidecker ("Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!") adds.

"The space program was the perfect foil or someone like that, someone who thinks they’re more qualified than they are," Reilly says. "When you take something as sober, as serious and as life and death as training for space, putting in guys who are kind of unreliable and a little crazy was just a great formula for comedy."

Despite being "subpar astronauts," as Armisen ("Saturday Night Live," "Portlandia") calls them, the trio would be worthy of NASA's research, but not in a way they'd appreciate.

"These characters are the type of people that they would study as a lesson in how you don't get to go to the outer space: by having petty arguments, by bragging, by talking in circles, (by being) wasteful. They were really wasteful with food," says Armisen. .

They get the occasional visitor, such as Super Bowl champ Travis Kelce as a fellow astronaut in the premiere, but they're mostly alone, with plenty of time for bonding and bickering.

Astronaut hopefuls Skip (Fred Armisen), left, Rook (Tim Heidecker) and Cap (John C. Reilly) share a small gym in their isolated desert compound in the Showtime comedy, 'Moonbase 8.'
Astronaut hopefuls Skip (Fred Armisen), left, Rook (Tim Heidecker) and Cap (John C. Reilly) share a small gym in their isolated desert compound in the Showtime comedy, 'Moonbase 8.'

What Skip and his colleagues lack in ability, they make up for in relatability.

"It was really easy (to play Skip) because I honestly feel like I could never accomplish what an astronaut (does). I have a fear of even going up in the elevator. If you go into the (space) shuttle, there's this elevator you go up and I think I'd be even scared going into one of those. I'm just afraid of heights," he says. "I think I'm even afraid of adventure."

However, pretending he's an astronaut didn't scare Armisen at all.

"I think of myself as a little kid, and when you're a kid, you're like, 'How cool would it be to be in a spacesuit?" he says. "I didn't have to go through all the training, but I get to look like I've gone through all the training. I really liked it."

Fred Armisen, left, and Tim Heidecker play would-be astronauts who aren't quite terrible but fall well short of competent in the Showtime comedy, 'Moonbase 8.'
Fred Armisen, left, and Tim Heidecker play would-be astronauts who aren't quite terrible but fall well short of competent in the Showtime comedy, 'Moonbase 8.'

Reilly, who produced and wrote "Moonbase" with his co-stars and "Baskets" executive producer Jonathan Krisel, likens it to his 2006 comedy, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

"We were worried at first – 'Are all the (auto racing) fans going to think we're just making fun of NASCAR?' – but it was a way to kind of put NASCAR on the cultural map. It made it fun to talk about. So, I think they’ll like it," he says of those involved with the space program.

Here on Earth, the actors are surprised at how much three men in isolation for hundreds of days eerily reflects many people's experiences in the age of COVID-19. (The show was filmed before the pandemic.)

Cap (John C. Reilly), left, may be the "Moonbase 8" team leader, but Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, playing himself as a fellow would-be astronaut, is calling the shots on the Showtime comedy.
Cap (John C. Reilly), left, may be the "Moonbase 8" team leader, but Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, playing himself as a fellow would-be astronaut, is calling the shots on the Showtime comedy.

"There's a quarantine scene where there was a virus and they're getting sick. There's the whole idea of being in the one moon base and trying to have activities. There's a little gym and a couple of exercise bikes," Armisen says. "There's no way anyone in the world could have predicted how it would resonate in that way. We never had the idea that everyone can identify with being stuck somewhere."

"I wish it hadn't become such a relatable thing," Reilly says. "But if it's something that makes people feel like they're not so alone, then great."

Heidecker found another silver lining to the coincidence. "It makes us look like we're really smart – even though we're not."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Moonbase 8': Fred Armisen and John C. Reilly play grounded astronauts